As you get older, you learn things aren’t always what they seem. A magician isn’t magical, he’s just highly practiced at misdirection and concealing what’s really happening, for example.
The idea of the Will of the People is similar. We take for granted that majority rule is a fair way to decide things. If the majority wants it, it’s the will of the people and it’s fair. Rarely do we question that.
But, in this week’s EconTalk podcast, Rodden on the Geography of Voting, this idea is put to the test. Near the end, I found the conversation on majority rule and the will of the people very interesting (emphasis added):
[Host] Russ [Roberts]: I think a lot of people have a romance about majority rule. Certainly one way that small groups of people settle disputes is they say: Well, let’s take a vote. And whatever gets the most votes wins. And I think to a lot of people that’s obviously the fairest, best way to decide stuff. And so all of these things that we’ve been talking about that mitigate that–whether it’s the Electoral College, winner take all districts–a lot of people say that’s just not the right way to do things. Everything should be decided by a majority vote. And yet, as we know from work by Kenneth Arrow and others, majority vote in the normative sense, meaning leading to outcomes we like, isn’t so strong as it seems. On the surface, nothing could be fairer than majority rule. And yet when you look a little closer you start to see that majority rule’s got some very deep flaws in it.
Guest [Rodden]: Yeah. This is one of the things that when I teach courses to undergraduates on institutions, we do this in the first or second week. It’s a very easy thing you can do to have the students give their rank ordering of their preferences for what type of pizza that they would like; you have each student rank three and then you put them together. And it’s very easy to find groups of students who have what in the social choice literature is called cycling majorities, where you can show that there is no such thing as the majority will. If I set up the institutions in such a way that there’s first a round robin tournament of pepperoni versus vegetarian and then the winner of that is paired off against sausage, I can get a different outcome than if I do the initial pairings in another way. And so I can show that whoever controls the agenda controls what kind of pizza the students are having. It’s kind of something that we’ve known since Condorcet and Arrow, the classics of social choice theory: it’s simply nonsensical to say that the majority has some kind of will that we will then translate into policy. And so the students are always sort of surprised by this. We like to believe that there is such a thing as the collective will. And I think one of the basic lessons of politics and institutions is, unfortunately, it’s possible to aggregate those preferences in very different ways in different institutions and get different outcomes. So we should[n't] attribute so much importance to something that we believe was the outcome of some kind of majority choice. Often the truth is much more complicated. Agenda control and political power are often used in getting us to the outcomes we see. It leads us to think in a different way about how we interpret the decisions that are made by legislatures and what they actually mean.
Russ: The other problem I have with “will of the people” is majority election. Whether it’s 55-45, or 90-10, the loser obviously felt differently. So it’s not the will of the people. It’s will of those who won that election, whether it’s a majority or whether it’s proportional or whether it’s this weird system we have in the United States. We don’t have referenda on every item. It’s this weird thing called the Legislature, Congress, Senate; we have committees; all this baggage, this incredible superstructure and infrastructure around the way political outcomes are coming out of our preferences. It’s not just a majority rule referendum. But the most important thing to me is that we all have different preferences. And so once you put it into a political process you are basically saying: We are going to get one outcome, and you are stuck with it–because it was the result of a vote. And I don’t see that as necessarily fair at all.
Walter Williams wrote about this, from a different perspective, in his classic Conflict or Cooperation column.
Thomas Sowell also has some excellent thoughts on the topic here .
I like how Russ Roberts finishes the thought in the podcast:
Because political decisions will struggle to reflect anything remotely like the will of the people, I want as few decisions as possible put into that sandbox. I’d rather have the competition of free association and free choice make those decisions and allow for the diversity of outcomes that private markets and private decisions have rather than political decisions, which are inevitably coercive.
Update: Here’s another post relating to the topic: Politics is a group of people making a decision for you.